In the seemingly inherent tendency to perceive the world through the lens of categorizations, we easily fall into the trap of dichotomies. One foundational and seemingly omnipresent dichotomy is what is called the exploration – exploitation trade-off. From the mundane and the everyday (new restaurant or the tried or true) to the complicated and life-changing (change of career or remain in the same job), we always seem to be faced with the either-or choice of exploration or exploitation. But what does it mean to explore and exploit? When is it better to do one or the other?
At its core, exploration is acknowledgment of the universe of possibilities, whereas exploitation is limiting oneself to the world of probabilities. Explorations require awareness of the power of uncertainty and contingency, whereas exploitation has the comfort of certainty and predictability. The outcomes during exploitation are distributed normally, whereas the power-law or the log-normal are the appropriate descriptive distributions during explorations. When exploiting, consequences resemble their causes, however during explorations effects can be unrecognizable from their causes. Explorations are an exercise in question finding, whereas exploitation is solution seeking. Exploitation is focused on the center with an eye to the boundaries, explorations are at the edge and look to the horizon. The tool of choice to explore would be a compass, but a map is required to exploit. During exploitations, deduction from first principles is enough, whereas explorations require induction and deduction. Exploration has the allure of novelty and the volatility of ambition, and exploitation is comfortable and familiar and is associated with the serenity of contentment.
In the biological world, exploration-exploitation is a foundational mechanism of change, however as most things in the biological world, it is not a dichotomy but can be better modeled as a continuum and a loop that exists in a dynamic equilibrium with each other and the environment. As Stephen J. Gould showed that the history of life on earth can be modeled by the theory of punctuated equilibrium, whereby long-periods of incremental change are punctuated by bursts of transformational change. During those times of incremental change, adaptation is driven by exploitive processes, but exploratory processes lurk and serve as a hedge against or a driver of transformative change. .
The evolutionary biologist Leslie Orgel said, “evolution is cleverer than you are.” So, in deference to the “wisdom” and “success” of the natural world, it is probably best served to observe and emulate the lessons offered by evolutionary processes. In that spirit, this space of essays is my personal attempt at developmental explorations set against the backdrop of day to day exploitations. As the historian Will Durant stated, “the only real revolution is in the enlightenment of the mind and the improvement of character, the only real emancipation is individual.”